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Sophomore finds purpose and community in fencing, student clubs

By: Yvette Lisa Ndlovu,  A&S Communications
Mon, 07/23/2018

An average day for Conan Gillis ‘21 starts with a math class in the morning, followed by a trip to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection at Kroch Library, where he might hold a letter by Thomas Jefferson or view a 1,000-year-old manuscript. In the evenings, he often participates in a fencing practice run by two Olympic-level fencers.

“The opportunity to do these things, and on a daily basis, is what drew me to Cornell in the first place, and I have not been disappointed,” Gillis said.

Gillis, a mathematics major considering a double major in government, recently reflected on what it is like to be a student living with a disability at Cornell in a Cornell Daily Sun op-ed. Gillis has a rare condition that has left him unable to walk.  

“The main impetus for writing that piece was my involvement in the Cornell Union for Disability Awareness (CUDA),” Gillis said. “Due to the advocacy experience I gained there, and the encouragement of one of the club’s presidents, I decided to write the article in order to give an insight to the experience of people with disability in higher education through my own perspective after a semester at Cornell.”

Gillis, a member of the Cornell Fencing Team, said he’s found his campus organizations and classmates to be inclusive, which has helped him grow in his knowledge and understanding of disability and to become a better advocate.

“My involvement in the two organizations helped me meet many of the people I now consider my closest friends at Cornell,” Gillis said. “I was especially impressed at how quickly the fencing team, which competes at the Division 1 level, made me feel welcome and included in the group.”

Gillis believes disability is a source of pride and an identity and culture to be shared and celebrated. Because of his interest in researching the effect that elected officials with disabilities, such as Senator Tammy Duckworth, have on the policy making process, Gillis has been doing coursework in political science. Gillis has advocated in front of three New York State senators, the lieutenant governor and the state comptroller. His work with the Cornell Union for Disability Awareness, an alliance of students interested in disability issues on and off campus, helps to promote better access, integration and understanding of people living with disabilities. Currently, CUDA is advocating for the creation of Cornell’s first disability cultural resource center.

This summer, Gillis is taking a math class and working for Cornell Conference Services.

“CUDA and the fencing team have both given me a sense of purpose and community, which I have not experienced anywhere else.”

Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is a communications assistant for the College of Arts & Sciences.